On 15 November, 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) National Council, a body representing all Palestinians, declared an independent Palestinian state. The gesture did not change life for Palestinians under occupation or in exile, but that wasn’t the intention.
The pronouncement was sugar coating major, unreciprocated political concessions, for the declaration also endorsed Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and gave implicit recognition to Israel. Thus, US conditions to open communication channels between the PLO and Israel were complied with.
Why did these UN resolutions become so critical in America’s political lexis? More than a decade earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had bestowed on Israel special powers over US policy in the Middle East. In 1975, he pledged that there would be no negotiation with the PLO as long as it did not recognise Israel and accept UN Resolutions 242 and 338.
Since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, PLO overtures to overcome Kissinger’s concocted predicament were stonewalled in Washington.
In 1982, I was privy to one instance of backdoor negotiations when Ronald Reagan’s administration and the PLO were on the verge of establishing formal contacts. That summer I was in Washington, DC, helping the national office of the Palestine Congress (PC) of North America.
The PC was an umbrella organisation representing Americans of Palestinian descent and we were in direct contact with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s office during the Israeli siege of Beirut. The Internet was still a proprietary of the US Army, but the telex machine allowed us instantaneous text-based messaging even during the heaviest Israel shelling on PLO centres in the Lebanese capital.
The long blockade and the wanton destruction, including cutting off power and water supplies to the city, prompted the Arab League to dispatch Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers to Washington to seek access for humanitarian support for the besieged city.
A secret delegation member was the late Khalid Al Hassan of the PLO Central Committee and a high-ranking member of the Fatah organisation. He was allowed to enter the US despite a blanket ban on PLO members.
Following the ministers’ meetings with officials from the State Department, Al Hassan asked to relay an urgent communiqué to the PLO chairman’s office. The message was for Arafat to issue a statement, recognising 242 and 338. In return, the US administration promised to instruct the late Philip Habib, the American mediator in Beirut at the time, to negotiate directly with the PLO.
Within minutes, Arafat was dictating his response: “You are selling me fish in the sea.” This Arabic proverb meant that the offer wasn’t firm enough.
Regardless, Al Hassan must have established phone contact with Arafat who, the next day and after a meeting with US Congressmen Pete McCloskey from California and Paul Findley of Illinois, declared his acceptance of all UN resolutions pertinent to Palestine.
However, the declaration did not mentioning explicitly resolutions 242 and 338, and so was inadequate for the US government to overcome Kissinger’s commitment to Israel.
Israel and its lobby became alarmed at the looming spectre of contacts between the US and the PLO. They responded by making it unlawful for Reagan or future American administrations to negotiate with the PLO.
The America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) enlisted Israel-firsters in Congress to codify the pledge into US law. It passed in 1984 and to top Kissinger, Congress approved additional conditions on the PLO.
Kissinger’s vow and AIPAC’s irrational supremacy over Congress and the White House have turned America into an inferior partner in Israel’s maniacal, bloody and political wars.
Today, US opposition to Palestine getting Observer State status at the UN is inseparable from Israel’s continued attempts to drag America into the abyss of hate and conflict.
Mr Kanj (www.jamalkanj.com) writes a weekly column on Arab issues and is the author of “Children of Catastrophe,” Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. This article was first published by the Gulf Daily News newspaper.